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January/February 2012

Reading: Pumping up the basics
by Linda Dawson

Linda Dawson is IASB director/ editorial services and editor of The Illinois School Board Journal.

See Spot. See Spot run. Run, Spot, run. Spot is gorgeous.”

The beginning of that sequence is what most people would recognize as an early reading lesson. But wait a minute. “Spot is gorgeous?” How does “gorgeous” fit into a kindergarten or first-grade vocabulary?

Very well, according to teachers and reading experts at Peoria School District 150.

With the beginning of the 2011-12 school year, District 150 embarked on an orchestrated quest to pump up its reading scores on the Illinois Standard Achievement Test (ISAT). The multi-pronged approach is supported by teachers and tutors in the classroom all the way up through the superintendent and the school board.

The basics of the change involve a daily dedicated 90 minutes of reading instruction throughout the elementary grades and an additional 45 minutes of grouped reading work every day. While the 90-minute reading block was in place before, it has now become sacrosanct. No student can be pulled out of that 90-minute reading block — not for speech, not for band, not for anything, according to Shameika Sykes-Patterson, the district’s literacy coach.

These time blocks, if implemented with diligence, should give the district a better than average “reading vs. stuff” ratio, which is important, according to Richard Allington, a professor of education at the University of Tennessee. He defines “stuff” as all the other things that teachers have students do besides reading and writing.

“In typical classrooms, it is not unusual to find that kids read and write for as little as 10 percent of the day (30 minutes of reading and writing activity in a 300-minute, or five-hour, school day),” Allington wrote in 2002.

Observations at two different schools in a number of classrooms proved to this author that District 150 teachers are keeping students on their reading tasks … reading aloud, reading to each other and reading to find specific words, as well as sounding out words and writing new words in workbooks.

Focusing on reading and not on “stuff” will be important to pumping up the district’s reading/literacy program, and it’s hoped that the extra reading efforts will pay off dividends in other subjects as well.

Current status

Peoria as a district is in “corrective action” under federal and state No Child Left Behind laws. Of its 27 schools, 10 are in federal School Improvement Status; only four do not qualify for Title I funds. Three middle schools and one primary school have been in improvement status for 10 years.

Superintendent Grenita Lathan was hired in 2010 with a directive from the school board to look at the entire curriculum for improvements.

“We looked at candidates with a strong background in curriculum and instruction,” said Linda Butler, current board president. “We wanted someone with operational skills as well as someone who would be committed and dedicated.”

 Lathan, who came to the district from San Diego and had worked previously in North Carolina and Oak Forest, Illinois, fit the description. One of her first orders of business was to use district personnel and volunteers to evaluate every program, including all extra-curriculars.

Everything was fair game for change, except the math curriculum (adopted in 2009) where the students were making progress, according to Sykes-Patterson and Rebecca Lindholm, director of Title I and Title III (English Language Learners).

Reading was the first target.

According to district AYP information, 64.9 percent of students met or exceeded standards in reading in 2010. However, when looking at subgroups, those numbers fell to 56 percent of African-American students, 50.6 percent for Limited English Proficiency, 38.2 percent for students with disabilities and 58 percent for economically disadvantaged. The Illinois AYP target for 2010 was 77.5 percent.

“Children of poverty coming into the district with a limited vocabulary, if tested, would qualify as ELL students,” Lindholm said. And with the district averaging one new family a week, many of whom are ELL students, the need for better vocabulary and a focus on reading became uppermost in everyone’s mind for improvement.

“Response to Intervention” strategies, which identify individual student weaknesses and help teachers implement immediate assistance, already were being used across the district. But Sykes-Patterson knew reading strategies needed to be consistent in order to make a difference.

Using a district-wide reading program also addresses student mobility issues, according to Lindholm. Teachers create an intervention folder that tracks each student’s progress. If the student changes schools, the folder goes with the child and the lessons will be similar no matter which building becomes the receiving school.

Literacy is everyone’s responsibility, not just reading teachers and tutors, according to Sykes-Patterson. So over the summer, a district team developed a new “balanced literacy framework” to be implemented at all schools. It presents research-based, common terminology for what the reading program should look like and sound like.

While it will remain a work in progress, she said, it does address the five basics of any good literacy program:

  • Phonics (associating letters or groups of letters with sound)
  • Phonemic awareness (hearing/identifying small units of sound)
  • Comprehension (understanding what was read)
  • Vocabulary (word recognition and definitions)
  • Fluency (reading easily aloud)

The district team looked at the “basal readers” or reading textbooks they had been using and concluded a more “robust” vocabulary program was needed. While the district will still use its SRA/McGraw-Hill textbooks as supplements in the overall program, their vocabulary program is being patterned after the work of Isabel Beck, a professor of education and senior scientist at the University of Pittsburgh.

Beck stresses the need to develop students’ “sophisticated” or “tier two” words — words that are more common to written language and rarer for young children’s oral language.

Beck’s work references a study by M.K. Smith in 1941, “Measurement of the Size of General English Vocabulary,” which found that high achieving third graders had vocabularies about equal to the lowest-performing 12th graders. Beck also cites a 2001 study by literacy expert Louisa C. Moats that says linguistically “poor” first graders know about 5,000 words, compared to the linguistically “rich” who know about 20,000 words when they’re learning the basics.

Beck also cites two other studies, one by Betty Hart and Todd Risely in 1995 and another by Andrew Biemiller in 1999, which both found that once gaps become established in vocabulary, it becomes more difficult to make the situation better.

Fluid groupings

When many adults think of elementary reading programs, they think about being assigned to the “bluebirds” or “cardinals” or similar groups of readers. Such groupings tended to put students in tracks that were often difficult to break out of, and like Biemiller’s vocabulary gaps, they perpetuated reading gaps among students.

  The new daily 45-minute group reading blocks at District 150, however, are vastly different. Principals and teachers hope that the fluidity of the groups keeps students from thinking they are ahead of or behind their peers in reading.

Principal Jamie Brown at Peoria’s Hines Elementary School said her teachers hold grade-level meetings once a week to move students in and out of reading groups. “About every 10 lessons we need to change groups,” she said.

In any one classroom, students may have five options for small group work: reading to themselves, reading to someone, listening to someone else read, word work or computer work.

“We can see a change in the building,” Brown said. “We’re seeing fewer discipline problems because students feel successful when they are doing things at their own level.”

At Peoria’s Thomas Jefferson School, Principal Patsy Santen uses an organizational chart to show by color what time each grade level has group reading. It takes great accuracy to make certain that the three Title I tutors who are in the building from 8 a.m. until noon are being used exactly where they are needed. The tutors have repurposed janitorial carts to organize the supplies that are taken from classroom to classroom.

Inside the classroom, and in just about every nook and cranny available, tutors and teachers work with small student groups. The tutors, Santen said, are all certified teachers who have retired from the district.

On a recent visit, one group was writing and learning letters and sounds; another was writing words. None of them seemed aware of whether their work was associated with intervention strategies or enrichment. Testing and grade-level meetings will determine which groups students will be assigned to next.

All this testing and grouping does take time. Santen said the second week in October was the first week for group work at Thomas Jefferson. While that might seem late for a district that welcomed students back on August 22, Sykes-Patterson said that she was proud of District 150 teachers for getting a new program up and running that quickly. Staff, teachers and tutors worked together to administer a placement test to each and every student in kindergarten through third grade to ensure a correct beginning placement within the core literacy program.

At the board level

In order to keep track of the curriculum changes that are being implemented, the District 150 board has modified its own meeting schedule. While the board still meets twice a month, one meeting is devoted to business with a 10-minute slot allotted for teacher or student presentations. The other meeting allots from 30 minutes to two hours for individual program presentations and discussion topics.

“We really want the board to see how this is working,” board president Butler said. “Becky (Lindholm) and Shameika (Sykes-Patterson) can go through programs with them and not be concerned about the amount of time allotted.”

These in-depth explanations also give the community the transparency and information that they have been asking for, she added.

Superintendent Lathan is excited about the changes that are being made and what is yet to come. But she also knows that in order to make a difference, the district — from the board down to the teachers — must follow the plan that has been created.

“This has to be done with fidelity,” Lathan said. To achieve that fidelity in the classroom, the district is providing professional development for teachers and principals on the new balanced literacy program, doing walk-throughs in classrooms to observe progress and implementing coaching where help is needed.

She knows that everyone in the district must have buy-in if they are to be successful … and that means following the new reading program.

“You can’t tweak and water down a program if you don’t like the parts,” Lathan said. “In order to make a difference, we must follow the plan created.”

“We want our students to be ready to move into the world on a global perspective,” Butler said. But that won’t happen if they can’t read.

“In a class of 24 [children],” Lathan said, “if 10 to 12 are behind, it can pull down the morale of the entire class.”

With the new balanced literacy program, students who need help will get it, while those who are already on grade level or above won’t be held back.

The district’s ambitious three-year strategic plan is available at, and shows much work remains to be completed by 2014. But the important strategy of creating a new literacy program is checked off as complete.

With multiple schools in corrective action, the improvements can’t come any too soon, according to Lindholm, Lathan and Butler.

“Our children deserve it,” Lindhom said. “We can’t wait any longer.”

“We want it to happen overnight,” Lathan said.

“It should have been yesterday,” Butler added.


Richard Allington, The Six Ts of Effective Elementary Literacy Instruction, 2002,

Isabel Beck, “Bringing Words to Life in Kindergarten and First Grade Classrooms,”

Andrew Biemiller, Language and Reading Success, 1999

Betty Hart and Todd Risely, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children, 1995

Literacy Coaching Clearinghouse,

Every child reading, every district’s goal

School boards craft mission statements that speak to equal opportunities for all students and making certain that each student develops to his or her full potential.

That mission takes everyone, working together, toward a common goal that often begins with the basics of reading. While the work contains some administrative directives, a number of the tips need the board’s input in order to come to fruition.

Policies regarding class size, professional development for teachers and parental involvement are three areas that the board can directly influence.

To help improve student learning and achievement in reading, the Learning First Alliance offers these tips:

Work in your communities. Form family literacy programs for new parents and care-givers so that all children will develop a strong language base and love for books before they attend preschool or kindergarten.

Provide strong early education. Set up high-quality preschool and kindergarten programs that not only introduce language skills and concepts of print, but also include diagnostic tests for early intervention.

Give teachers the most help possible. Provide teachers with new materials, tools, and strategies and extensive, ongoing and meaningful professional development to use them.

Keep the size of class for reading instruction in the primary grades low. Studies show that elementary-age children do better when classes are 15 children to one teacher. Some schools reduce class size by providing additional certified teachers, tutors, librarians, special education teachers — during reading periods only.

Make first grade count. First grade is a very important year in a student’s schooling because it’s when children usually define themselves as good or poor readers.

Base reading instruction and text selection on solid research, using evidence, not ideology. Then provide explicit and systematic instruction in phonics and exposure to rich literature, both fiction and non-fiction.

Write and read together. Creative and interpretive writing instruction that begins in kindergarten will help build reading competence and practice.

Test often on what the child is taught in class. Continuous assessment is the only way teachers will know how fast children learn and what individual needs must be met. Informal assessments can be daily, with regular testing every six to 10 weeks.

Step in immediately if there’s a problem. For those children who experience problems, one-to-one tutoring with certified teachers or well-trained paraprofessionals is best.

Expect families to help. Children should spend additional time reading aloud and silently beyond what time permits during the school day. Ask parents to have children read aloud to them for 20 to 30 minutes daily in first grade. Help families choose materials that interest their child and that match his or her reading level.

Pull out all the stops in second grade and beyond. Give special attention to children who are not reading well at the end of first grade so that you can strengthen their language skills and reading ability.

From the Learning First Alliance website at

What is a literacy coach?

According to the International Reading Association (IRA), a literacy coach — or reading coach — is a reading specialist who focuses on providing professional development for teachers by giving them the additional support needed to implement instructional programs and practices.

Literacy coaching implies that the person supports all aspects of language arts — reading, writing and language development — and is a more all-encompassing term.

The IRA has set the following qualifications for literacy coaches:

  • Previous teaching experience
  • Master’s degree with concentration in reading education
  • Minimum of 24 graduate semester hours in reading and language arts and related courses
  • An additional six semester hours of supervised practicum experience

Questions board members should raise about reading

School board members should maintain their “balcony perspective” when it comes to district programs, like the new literacy program in Peoria SD 150. However, board members also need to ask the proper questions of administration to make certain that what is being implemented follows the direction that the board has set for the district.

Sharon Full-Love worked with SD 150 a few years ago to increase involvement with Title I parents.

A former Illinois State Board of Education employee and Title I consultant, she offers the following questions that boards should be asking their superintendent regarding reading programs:

  • Are the teachers from different grade levels talking to other grade levels about how and what they teach students?
  • Are teachers using relevant examples for students?
  • What sources of research are teachers using to base their reading strategies?
  • Do our reading programs address various learning styles?
  • Have our reading teachers gone through Ruby Payne or another form of poverty training?
  • Are our programs based on whole word reading, phonics or a mix?
  • What percent of their day do teachers actually spend on reading instruction?

“If board members don’t ask the right questions,” Full-Love said, “the district can wind up with a two million dollar reading program that it doesn’t need.”

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